The Icarus Syndrome

A History of American Hubris

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

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In The Icarus Syndrome, Peter Beinart tells a tale as old as the Greeks—a story about the seductions of success. Beinart describes Washington on the eve of three wars—World War I, Vietnam, and Iraq—three moments when American leaders decided they could remake the world in their image. Each time, leading intellectuals declared that history was over, and the spread of democracy was inevitable. Each time, a president held the nation in the palm of his hand. And each time, a war conceived in arrogance brought untold tragedy.

In dazzling color, Beinart portrays three extraordinary generations: the progressives who took America into World War I, led by Woodrow Wilson, the lonely preacher's son who became the closest thing to a political messiah the world had ever seen. The Camelot intellectuals who took America into Vietnam, led by Lyndon Johnson, who lay awake at night after night shaking with fear that his countrymen considered him weak. And George W. Bush and the post-Cold War neoconservatives, the romantic bullies who believed they could bludgeon the Middle East and liberate it at the same time. Like Icarus, each of these generations crafted "wings"—a theory about America's relationship to the world. They flapped carefully at first, but gradually lost their inhibitions until, giddy with success, they flew into the sun.

But every era also brought new leaders and thinkers who found wisdom in pain. They reconciled American optimism—our belief that anything is possible—with the realities of a world that will never fully bend to our will. In their struggles lie the seeds of American renewal today. Based on years of research, The Icarus Syndrome is a provocative and strikingly original account of hubris in the American century—and how we learn from the tragedies that result.

A Council on Foreign Relations Book


Reviews and Endorsements

Lucid and provocative.

Publishers Weekly

The Icarus Syndrome does what works of history and journalism do at their very best: use the past to illuminate, in often stark and surprising ways, the challenges of the present. This is an important book.

Jon Meacham, author of American Lion

The Icarus Syndrome is a confident and contentious history of more than a century of American foreign policy and its recurring tragic flaws.

Sean Wilentz, author of The Age of Reagan

Beinart's The Icarus Syndrome is very much a book with a message: a cautionary message to avoid hubris and to recognize the messy reality of world politics.

Paul Kennedy, author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

Energetically researched and entertainingly written, Peter Beinart's The Icarus Syndrome is both a fascinating intellectual history and an important coming-of-age parable about his generation's hard-learned lesson in the limits of American power.

Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side

Peter Beinart has written a vivid, empathetic, and convincing history of the men and ideas that have shaped the ambitions of American foreign policy during the last century—a story in which human fallibility and idealism flow together. Beinart's book is not only timely; it is indispensible.

Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars

Why do we succomb to hubris? Peter Beinart has written a highly intelligent and wonderfully readable book that answers the question by looking at a century of American foreign policy. As with everything Beinart writes, it is lucid, thoughtful and strikingly honest.

Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post-American World

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A CFR Book. HarperCollins

Excerpt Up

So where does ambition end and hubris begin? There's no formula for answering that. in fact, the belief that you've discovered a formula that works in all situations is itself a sign that you've crossed the line. To some degree, foreign policy is all about deciding in which direction you'd rather be wrong. Are you so intent on making sure America doesn't fly too high that you oppose not only invading Iraq, but saving Kuwait? Are you so determined to avoid flying too low that you support not merely World War II but Vietnam? Barely anyone will be right every time, because the gods don't speak to us. Or, as Warren Buffett has said about investing in a bull market, it's like Cinderella at the ball. She knows that if she stays too late her chariot will turn into a pumpkin and her gown will turn to rags. But she doesn't want to leave too early and miss meeting Prince Charming. The problem is that there are no clocks on the wall.

No clocks, but there are warning signs, the kind that someone with lots of experience at balls might notice. One warning sign is overconfidence: a political climate in which influential people assume that the war's outcome is preordained; that because of America's military prowess or economic resources or ideological appeal, we cannot possibly lose. When influential Americans talk that way, it's usually because America has not lost in a long time. We're all prisoners of analogy, and people tend to imagine that the future will be like the immediate past: that Vietnam will be like Korea or World War II; that Iraq will be like the Gulf War or the initial phase of Afghanistan. But that reliance on analogy often blinds us to the ways in which, rather than replicating the successes of the past, we are reaching beyond them, taking on more risk. We think we are running on a treadmill when we are actually ascending a ladder.

If overconfidence is one danger sign, unilateralism is another. France, Canada, and Britain, which had fought alongside the United States in World War II and Korea, refused to join us in Vietnam. France, Canada, and Germany, which had supported the United States in the Gulf War, the Balkans, and Afghanistan, opposed invading Iraq. The problem with failing to convince other countries--and particularly the Western democracies that broadly share our values and interests--to back us in war is not necessarily that we need their help to win. (These days, given the vast gap between our military capacity and theirs, they may be as much a burden as a help.) The problem is that their unwillingness to back us may be evidence that winning is impossible. What we need, in other words, is not our allies' tanks but their judgment. It's like a patient contemplating a high-risk medical procedure: You may not need several doctors to perform the operation, but you want several doctors to confirm that the operation can be successfully performed at all.

The sober judgment of allies is especially important for a nation intoxicated with success. (As the old saying goes, when three friends say you're drunk, lie down.) Americans sometimes dismiss our European allies as defeatist, so burdened by their tragic histories and so enfeebled by their military weakness that they instinctively choose retreat over confrontation. But it is precisely because they have been battered by history that they may be able to spot hubris when we, because of our more triumphant experience, cannot. Before Vietnam, and again before Iraq, French leaders urged the United States to learn from France's imperial misfortunes in Southeast Asia and the Arab world. but Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush scoffed at the idea that we had anything to learn. The French, after all, were history's losers. We were its winners. They were mere mortals; we were America.

A third flashing light is excessive fear. Even when America's leaders fly nearest the sun, they generally insist that they are merely taking defensive measures against grave threats. Hubris rarely speaks its name. and to some extent, those leaders are right: Foreign threats usually have something to do with America's decision to launch a war. Woodrow Wilson would not have taken America into World War I just because he believed he could reorder world politics; German subs were sinking our ships. The United States would not have fought the Vietnam War had Ho Chi Minh not been a communist, no matter how confident we were of our military might. But the problem with explaining America's wars solely as a response to threats is that our threat perceptions vary wildly over time. Thing we take in stride at one moment terrify us at another. In 1939, few American politicians believed that a Nazi takeover of Warsaw constituted a grave danger to the United States. By 1965, many believed we couldn't live with a North Vietnamese takeover of Saigon. In the 1980s, Americans lived peacefully, albeit anxiously, with thousands of Soviet nuclear warheads pointed our way. By 2003, many Washington commentators claimed that even Iraqi biological or chemical weapons put us in mortal peril. How threatened American policymakers feel is often a function of how much power they have. The more confident our leaders and thinkers become about the hammer of American force, the more likely they are to find nails.

That's the problem with explaining Iraq merely as a response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as the Bush administration did. Obviously, 9/11 mattered: Without it, we would not have sent more than one hundred thousand U.S. troops into Iraq. But had 9/11 occurred in 1979 or 1985 or 1993, moments when America was less confident that its military was unstoppable, its economic resources plentiful and its ideals universal, it is unlikely that we would have responded by launching two distant war in short succession, something the United States had never done in its entire history. In fact, even in 2002, had the war in Afghanistan not initially gone well, thus further buoying the Bush administration's self-confidence, America probably would not have invaded Iraq. And had Bush officials doubted that they could successfully invade and remake Iraq, they probably would not have declared Saddam an urgent and intolerable threat. America's leaders tend not to tell us we are in grave danger unless they think they can do something about it.

This is not to say it's always a mistake for the United States to wage war in places it once considered irrelevant. Over the course of the last century, as America has risen to global power, we have naturally come to worry about regions of the world to which we previously gave little thought. But when we allow our fears to swell so dramatically that quelling them would require virtually unlimited quantities of money and blood, something has gone wrong. Once Lyndon Johnson declared a communist takeover in backward and remote Vietnam to be a grave threat to the United States, then a communist takeover in virtually any country constituted a grave threat. Once the Bush administration said America was in mortal danger because Saddam was supporting terrorism (not even terrorism against the United States, just terrorism) and seeking weapons of mass destruction, America was suddenly in mortal danger from Iran, North Korea, Syria, and perhaps Pakistan, too.

A wise foreign policy starts with the recognition that since America's power is limited, we must limit our enemies. That's why Franklin Roosevelt hugged Stalin close until the Soviet Union had helped us defeat Nazi Germany, and why Richard Nixon opened relations with China, so the United States wasn't taking on Moscow and Beijing at the same time. By contrast, when America's leaders outline doctrines that require us to confront long lists of movements and regimes simultaneously, it's a sign that we've lost the capacity to prioritize. And that, in turn, is a sign that we think we are so powerful that we don't need to prioritize. And that, in turn, is a sign that we're flying too high.

Copyright © 2010 by Peter Beinart. All rights reserved.